It can be exhausting to fret over our individual carbon footprints. Our energy might be better spent pushing to change entire systems — where there are endless possibilities for climate action, writes Dr Sally Gillespie.
In the ashy and dusty wake of this summer’s drought and bush fires, the urgency of climate action is mounting. Over these last heartbreaking months of raging bushfires and intensifying drought, I have had countless conversations with women saying that they want to do something about what is happening. What they mean by doing something is not only fund raising for bush fire affected communities but also helping to bring about social and political changes to drive climate action.
The deepening climate emergency, combined with frustrations over inadequate or non-existent Government climate policies, are pushing more and more women to rethink their ideas about personal agency, social action and political processes. This is liberating a wave of energy for community projects and workplace initiatives, as well as for political protests.
Climate crisis is a complex systemic problem which requires systemic solutions. Trying to resolve all the daily dilemmas it throws up is impossible on an individual basis. The parameters and influences of the social, economic and political systems largely determine how we live. This does not mean individual responses, like recycling or leaving the car at home are insignificant, but they have limited impact if not accompanied by effective recycling schemes, affordable and efficient public transport and walkable cities.
Techno-industrialist economies are turbo-charged by fossil-fuelled growth and consumption, producing cheap goods and foods, which ignore ecological and social costs. If we care about our living world, once we know the harms caused by our lifestyles, it becomes the right thing to do to individually curb these harms in any number of possible ways such as reducing flights, buying second hand or eating local or organic foods. Not because this will be enough to stop climate disruption, but because acting in accord with ecological awareness reduces the strain of cognitive dissonance, while also contributing to cultural change.
Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising in Australia , not because individuals are not trying hard enough to live in more ecologically conscious ways, but because governmental and corporate decisions about fossil fuel production and subsidies, growth economies, land clearing practices, planning laws, and infrastructure planning lock us into escalating emissions.
It is a waste of energy for us to individually fret over our carbon footprint, when what we most need to focus on is changing governments and economic systems. As Emma Marris observes,
“As long as we are competing for the title of ‘greener than thou,’ or are paralyzed by shame, we aren’t fighting the powerful companies and governments that are the real problem. And that’s exactly the way they like it.”
When you join the dots and see that effective climate action requires no less than changing the systems within which we live, it opens up endless possibilities for action. The first response I suggest to people when they ask what they should do is to start talking with others about this, at home, at work and with your friends and neighbours, as well as listening to climate leaders. We can’t change the world without changing ourselves, and both changes can only be done in the company of others who support and inspire us.
Australia has a host of inspiring women-led climate movements, most notably 1 Million Women.This organisation, in the words of its founder Natalie Isaacs, is “about amplifying the strengths of women, mobilising our power as change makers and using that to shape the world we want to live in.” Over time, 1 Million Women’s campaigns have extended beyond helping women to reduce their carbon footprints to more systemic approaches. Their website host a range of initiatives including letter writing campaigns, consumer boycotts, advice on transferring into fossil free superannuation funds and banks and supporting students to do climate presentations in their schools. 1 Million Women ambassador Rachel Perkins observes “One woman can do a lot when you look at one woman with another million women who stand alongside her.”
Another suggestion I give people is to follow their passions and existing interests, so they can be inspired, have fun and feel effective. For climate engagement to be sustainable, who we are and what we love needs to align with participating in social and systemic change. “Doing the right thing” is usually draining and short lived, but finding a form of engagement that extends horizons and is full of heart and good humour, energises and transforms lives.
No one understands this better than The Knitting Nannas. This group of older women originally came together to oppose coal seam gas mining on their farms in the Northern Rivers of NSW. They won, in collaboration with a range of local community groups. From small collaborations, bigger ones flow. Today there are more than forty Knitting Nanna loops (or groups) across Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Decked out in their official colours of black and yellow, the Knitting Nannas conduct knitting sit-ins outside politicians offices, carry out cheeky stunts, support younger protestors at blockades and even perform rap on YouTube. Behind their wisecracks, lies the steely grit of mature women committed “to peacefully protest against the destruction of our air, land and water by greedy people and greedy organisations.” In the process they cheerfully chat to anyone they encounter from local shoppers to the police about what they are doing and why it is important.
While protests are vital in rallying support and exerting pressure for change, they are only one part of the landscape of climate action. There is virtually no passion, talent or circumstance that is irrelevant when caring for our world or transforming consciousness about the way we live. From neighbours establishing community gardens to barristers arguing for the legal rights for rivers, cultural change is happening through projects founded on inspiration and collaborative action. Our human desire for meaning, fulfilment and the joy of making a difference are a perfect fit for a life of Earth care and action.
Dr Sally Gillespie facilitates workshops on climate psychology and ecopsychology and is the author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining our world and ourselves, available online and in all good bookstores.